Barak forced to free 13 'hostages' but demands new law to keep others

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The Independent Online

The last time Hussein Fahd Dakduk was a free man, the Soviet Union still existed, the West's war against Saddam Hussein was four years away, and nobody had heard of a dot.com millionaire. He was but 17 years old, a young man unlucky enough to have been born into an old war.

Yesterday, 13 years on, he became a free man again, able to start his life anew, having spent his young adulthood behind bars as a hostage held - in violation of international law - by Israel, which bills itself as the region's only democracy.

He and 12 other Lebanese men were blindfolded, handcuffed and driven by bus, its windows blocked from prying eyes with a lining of newspapers, to Israel's border with Lebanon to be handed over to the Red Cross and taken home.

Their release came afterSupreme Court judges ruled last week that the men were not a threat to Israel's security and the government could therefore not continue holding them purely to buy the return of captured members of the military such as Ron Arad, a navigator shot down in 1986.

But when their freedom came yesterday - after three delays in a week - it could scarcely have been more grudgingly granted. And their fate hung by a thread until the end. At one stage Ehud Barak, the Prime Minister - reacting to Israeli anger over the releases - contemplated trying to rush a law through the Knesset allowing the government to keep the men in prison.

Several of his liberal-leaning ministers persuaded him to drop that draconian idea at a meeting of the security cabinet. Instead, the cabinet opted to free the 13 men, but to introduce legislation that seems designed to allow the Defence Minister (also Mr Barak) to hold "enemy belligerents" without trial as bargaining chips, although it is unclear at present.

Israel says this will conform with international law, but it is hard to see how: governments are barred from holding hostages by the Geneva Convention.

In reality, the hostages who left yesterday were always pretty poor bargaining chips. Some were in their teens when they were arrested, anonymous walk-on players in the Israel-Arab conflict. The Israelis sentenced them to short prison terms that expired years ago.

Hussein Dakduk was seized by pro-Israeli Christian militiamen in a Lebanese village in April 1987, before he was old enough to have risen to a position of influence among the ranks of Israel's Islamic foes, even if he had wanted to.

When the Israelis took delivery of him, they charged him merely with membership of Hizbollah. His sentence - imposed in secret by a military court - was 18 months in prison. It ended in 1988. Mr Dakduk's confinement, without trial or charge, was to continue for another 12 years.

But, despite yesterday's release - which was delayed by several hours because of a last-minute legal challenge by Ron Arad's family - the issue is still not over. Israel continues to hold two others, Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a Hizbollah cleric, and Mustapha Dirani. And more than 100 Lebanese are being held in Khiam prison in south Lebanon by Israel's proxy militia, the "South Lebanon Army".

Sheikh Obeid and Mustapha Dirani were abducted from Lebanon by Israeli commandos - in 1989 and 1994 respectively - and have been held without trial or charge ever since. Israel is determined not to let them go and is unmoved by constant reminders from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that the two men are hostages and that keeping them amounts to a war crime. They are, in the eyes of Israel, dangerous enemy leaders who one day can be usefully traded.

Politics has played a large part in Israel's handling of all this: Mr Barak's government is sliding in the polls, its image tarnished by scandal and a failure to live up to its election promises of peace and prosperity. It is keen to be seen as strong in the eyes of a public that tends to view the hostage release as an own goal.

And there is another crucial underlying issue. The Supreme Court's decision to free the men is part of a larger effort by the court to advance Israel's evolution into a democraticnation, a society that conforms to Western norms whose legal system guarantees equality to all its citizens, be they Arab or Jew.

There has been a steady flow of landmark rulings by the court that reinforces this aim - a judgment, for instance, banning the allocation of settlement land exclusively to Jews; another barring security service agents from using torture during interrogations.

This trend, a shift from war to peace, runs counter to Israel's other identity, its view of itself as an exclusively Jewish homeland (despite its 1 million Arabs) where civil rights and laws are ultimately subordinate to security issues.

For Mr Barak, this conflict represents a political problem: the signs are that the electorate - and certainly parts of his shaky coalition - prefer the fortress Jewish state. Yesterday's releases, though incomplete, were a success for the Supreme Court. But the battle has only just begun.

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